The silent stillness of a shoebill’s stare

Staring into this powerful bird’s beady eye – its extraordinary face more African mask than that of a bird – I felt connected for a moment to something old and original.

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A few days ago, my son, Lucas, and I took the train to Prague for his school break. Usually, when I visit a city, my first port of call is whatever passes for a botanical garden but when he told me that Prague’s zoo contained not only giant salamanders but also two pairs of shoebills, I could not resist the temptation. On my last visit to the Czech capital, some 17 years ago, I had avoided the zoo (a general policy before I had children: the sight of animals in captivity depresses my spirits, even when the zoo is humane and well designed); but the prospect of a giant salamander – supposedly, the inspiration for Karel Capek’s feverish sci-fi classic War with the Newts – and what might well be the most enigmatic of all birds, forced me to set aside my misgivings.

Yet, while the salamanders were suitably sinister-seeming (one had recently bitten off a keeper’s finger when the presumptuous fellow tried to sex it), it was the shoebill who won our hearts. (Although the zoo is said to hold two breeding pairs, we encountered only a single bird.) This may seem odd, because shoebills don’t do much: they tend to stand very still for long periods of time and, natural solitaries, make it all too clear that they feel nothing but disdain for spectators. In the wild, they are formidable hunters, taking not only fish but water snakes and even small crocodiles; and, though they do keep company sometimes, it is only for as long as it takes to mate. I suspect that, once that tedious ritual is over, they’re glad to get back to what they do best. Here, in captivity, stared at by the likes of me, Prague Zoo’s fine specimen seemed bored and perhaps a little bemused by the attention.

On my side, though, the encounter was unforgettable. Staring into this powerful bird’s beady eye – its extraordinary face more African mask than that of a bird – I felt connected for a moment to something old and original, some Ur-presence that both excited and unsettled me. Little wonder that, in its Tanzanian homeland, the shoebill is seen as a bad omen. According to legend, if a man goes missing in the swamp, the shoebill is to blame.

Why did that gaze feel so intimate to me when, clearly, the bird felt nothing but indifference? Might it be that, whatever we say we believe, however we govern ourselves socially, the innermost of our being is pagan and, mostly, animist – a nomad spirit at the edge of a vast marsh that might run on for ever, haunted by shoebills, its waters home to the mysterious, deadly salamanders that so inspired Capek? Is that why we come away from such encounters touched, not just by sadness at seeing such creatures held in captivity but also by a kind of grief for us all, because none of us – bird, salamander or human – deserves to exist in our variously captive states?

Leaving the zoo – which, I must admit, is the finest of its kind I have seen in a long time – I thought of the American poet Richard Howard’s “Purgatory, formerly Paradise”. There, he speaks of “the containing life/continuing Out There, forever beyond us”. And, as self-indulgent as this might seem, I felt compelled to ask myself if this might not be the fundamental tragedy of human existence, this sense of “forever beyond us”.

If the shoebill or the giant salamander were released, there are still swamps and waterways to which they could return and make themselves at home. But what of us, equally captive in our own way, yet bereft, now, of any connection to the Out There that is constantly diminishing, in real time and in what remains of our animist imaginings? 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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